The Gospel Unravels Strength

“If we say, ‘I believe in Jesus,’ but it doesn’t affect the way we live, the answer is not that now we need to add hard work to our faith so much as that we haven’t truly understood or believed in Jesus at all.” Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith

I had the opportunity a few years ago to experience what my denomination calls church planting assessment center. Imagine Hollywood Week on American Idol. Long hours of learning the ways God has woven together the unique patchwork of your heart, opportunities to share your testimony in front of your peers and moments of walking down a long aisle where three assessors sit at a table and tell you whether or not you are wired and ready to go and engage as a couple in the kingdom building work of planting new churches.

I walked into the week performing, prepared and properly attired. Church planting is simply starting new churches under the authority of a larger church in our denomination and church planting is statistically proven to be an effective way to share the hope of Jesus with the unchurched. My heart yearns for everyone to know and experience the hope I have in Jesus. I wanted church planting. I deeply desired for God to use me in a place where I felt comfortable enough to swim strongly, I wanted to reach people who were just like me.

Michael Craddock and I sat up front. Michael Craddock loves front row living. There were nine or so other couples in the room with us. Each of the couples is randomly assigned throughout the weekend a time to share both their testimonies and the husband preaches a brief sermon. My desire was to go first. I personally knew I could not sit there and marinate on what I had to say and wrestle with my “I am not enough” demons. Walking into the week I had such an impressive and well prepared speech, I am from total darkness so I believed my story was the kind of story that would certainly be a home run.

But in God’s good plan and perfect timing even with our front row living, Michael Craddock and I did not get the opportunity to stand up in front of the room first, Michael Craddock and I did not even get the chance to share the first night. In God’s good plan, I had to sit and I had to wait. I had to marinate. I had to listen the stories of others and wrestle with the self-pity threads of not being good enough I have woven around my heart. Wrestle with the fact that maybe my story was not that impressive at all. Wrestle with the fact that maybe God wasn’t calling me to what I believed to be was my filet mignon on the buffet line of ministry opportunities.

By the second day around lunch time I still had not had any opportunities to impress anyone. But I found myself sitting next to a pastor I had never met before at lunch, he was an assessor so I had my performance face on. He began to engage my heart and I very safely stayed at the surface. After fifteen years of discussing anything that had to do with the loss of my mother as a child I was very good at rotely responding to questions about my childhood. Beneath all my winding up tight and bootstrap pulling up this was what I had learned to do. But this man wouldn’t let me stay at the surface and I felt the threads from all my winding up tight begin to fray. I could feel hot tears in my eyes. Tears that were supposed to be hidden beneath my tough exterior.

In the waiting I then heard a sermon from 2 Corinthians 12. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:9-10.

And then the questioning, the unraveling, the wondering if I am defining strength by the ways of the world or by the ways of the gospel. God’s power was made perfect in weakness? God’s grace is enough? I can be content and even boast about my weak places because the power of God rests upon me? Weakness is strength?

As I sat there, tears still so close to the surface from lunch, I thought about these truths From 2 Corinthians. I thought about the gospel. I thought about living a life of pulling up bootstraps and covering up weaknesses and hardships since that graying day in March in the Chrysler Town and Country Minivan on Sycamore Creek Drive. I thought of the years I had spent as a Christian covering up weaknesses with scripture to appear impressive and pulled together. Using scripture as a tool to protect instead of a tool to transform.

In God’s perfect timing, we were called up for our turn almost directly after this sermon from 2 Corinthians 12. Right as I was sitting there in my head planning to rewrite all of the things I wanted to say. Hot tears so close to the surface. All my prepared words written out of a worldly view strength, performing well and impressing others now unraveled in pieces around me. I listened to Michael share and when my turn came some words came out that I knew and had rehearsed and then some other words I wasn’t even planning on saying at all. Something about feeling a deep burden and need for planting churches to bring the hope of Jesus and but then tears.

I began to cry. In front of a room of my peers and a long table of assessors I broke out into a hot mess of embarrassment level tears. The next words I said through sobs went something like, “I want to plant a church but I think maybe I haven’t been a Christian for long enough to be a good church planting wife. I just don’t know all the church songs.”

In all my preparedness and pulling up bootstraps I stood in front of that room and ending up sobbing about not knowing all the church songs. It was like my clenched jaw, the gatekeeper of all of those tears opened wide and every single tear I had bottled up for fifteen years began to flow. The words of my pastor friend and the words from 2 Corinthians were like a branch that just gently touched the surface of my frozen pond and I cracked open completely.

This was the beginning of the gospel unraveling my ideas about strength. My learned behaviors of gate keeping tears and hiding behind walls and verses. This is when I began to see I have so much unraveling to do beneath the surface when it comes to processing what strength looks like in Jesus. I have so many personal requirements for how I believe I should live as a wife, mother and Christian. So many expectations that aren’t grounded in what God requires of me at all. All God requires is that when I am weak, His power is perfectly displayed. As as I bravely walk in vulnerability, owning brokenness and rejoicing over healing tears I am slowly unraveling what I how I used to define strength to how God defines strength.

I am learning that following Jesus isn’t about being good enough, living a moral life or how well we can clean ourselves up on the outside. The gospel turns that all upside down and inside out. Following Jesus is about how broken we are and how willing we are to let Jesus shine through the broken places. There are many instances where I am still the insecure, guarded girl in the front seat of the Chrysler Town and Country Minivan. God isn’t completely finished with me yet, but he is working on me every so slowly. Philippians says, and I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ. (Philippians 1:6).

God never did call us to church planting. In God’s good and perfect plan God has continued to make me wrestle in waters in which I feel uncomfortable and not quite strong enough to swim. Just a year and a half after church planting assessment my husband was called to be the lead pastor in an already established church. A role in which I feel inadequate and unequipped for but now that I have unraveled in the gospel I know I can be content in my weaknesses because I am willing to let Christ shine through my broken places. I am enough because Jesus makes me enough.

“It would be nice and fairly nearly true, to say that ‘from that time forth, Eustace was a different boy.’ To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.”

C.S Lewis, The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader

A Mother Who Dwells

The bare soles of my feet are on the hardwood floors in the dining room, my hands are busy folding the third and fourth loads of laundry for the day, my son playing in the family room and my daughter with three rows of dining room chairs lined up in the office. She is driving a minivan full of Disney Princesses to Target in her imagination. I can see her from the dining room as she buckles each one of them into their seats with fingertips still orange from the cheetos she had with her lunch, she tells each doll “I love you so much” and places a bag of extra clothes and pretend kitchen food in the floor of the minivan for the journey.

Easily I see myself playing there in that office. I remember a walk in closet in my parent’s master bedroom from childhood. I would take my dolls into that space and line them up, drive them somewhere with my pretend husband, Davy Jones or Joey McIntyre in the front seat. Easily I am taken back that place and I can see my mom, too. She is full of life and she is fully present. I think of her and I think of how she always showed up. She entered into our games and our lives.

For a moment my grief returns when I think of her, only grief now doesn’t have the sharp painful edges it once had before. The sharp edges of grief have now become smooth with time and heart work. My grief has been loosened from anger and now the weight of the sadness feels smoothed out and clean like a freshly laundered bed sheet on a warm summer day. The sadness brings comfort and wholeness, it is now crisp and clean.

My son comes to me as I fold, he begins to pester around me like a gnat in the summertime. As I fold the tiny shorts and match the socks I am stirred to thinking of the kind of mother I want to be. I am stirred to thinking about what my mother would do in this moment if she had just one more day with us and I thought about what I would want to do if this was my last day here too. I know for me I would not want to be buried in a task list of making the house look just so- I am pretty sure that is not how my mother would want to spend her time either if she was given just one more day to soak up childhood imagination and cheeto-fingered hugs. I believe she would want to dwell in the moments with us, lingering there for as long as she was able.

My thoughts switch from past to present and I think about the ministry I have to these children in my home, the privilege of being the one to fill their buckets and care for their hearts. In the present I am stirred to think about how Jesus was with those He came to minister to, how He dwelt among them, how He reclined at the table, how He was right there, Jesus loved by being fully present and showing up.

I think about how a lifetime from now I want my kids to remember me as a mother who was with them, a mother who was fully present, a mother that showed up physically, emotionally. Not as a mother who always had empty laundry bins or all the toys picked up off the floor. I fight to lay the ideal of perfectionism down, the old must unravel away before I can embrace that an unfolded pile of laundered clothes is evidence of a life lived alongside my kids. I must be renewed in the spirit of my mind to see the undone housework as the healthy fruit of a life lived showing up and dwelling among the ones God has given to me to care for during these fleeting days of motherhood.

Reminded of what my mother would do if she had just one more day, I walk the half-folded laundry upstairs and I sit with my the son who was pestering around me. I place him in my lap. He has grown so much it is difficult for me to gather him up, but for a time he lets me hold him. I listen to him, we laugh. I then go to my daughter and she lets me hold her too. I hold onto her, I rock her. She melts into me for minutes. I think about my mom and I believe this is what she would do if she had one more day. I think about how Jesus knew the number of His days and how He spent them dwelling among people, the people who He loved so much and would love enough to give His life for.

Oh how connection is so needed. Connection is so much more intergral to the whole-children I want to raise up in the Lord. More important than children who remember how clean the house was or my fussing over neat piles of clean laundry.  We are all thirsting for just a few moments to dwell among those we love and melt into them. How we all just want someone to sit with us and hold us.

I want to walk in a life that produces the fruit of remembering what my mother would tell me to do if she just had one more day. Be fully present and full of life. I want to show up and dwell among the ministry of motherhood I have sitting right in my lap. And one day, I hope to be recovered from perfectionism. I hope my children remember piles of half-folded laundry and a mother who dwelt among the childhood imaginations and cheeto-fingered hugs. I want to be a mother who dwells.

When The Plants Are Thirsty

It’s Sunday afternoon in my nook of the world and my husband is home from his work as lead pastor at the church just around the block from our home. He comes in and I see him, stretched and exhausted. He does all things well but at times reminds me of Bert from Mary Poppins carrying around way too many instruments, hands in so many trades.

We have been in the same space with him, at church, but the kids and I know our time to drink him up is once we are at home. So we all wait for our turn and as soon as he comes through the laundry room door my four kids climb all over him like ants on that sticky apple juice spot on the hardwood floor.

I can see he is worn but I simply say, “Your plants are thirsty, let them drink.”

For eight years I’ve watched this happen, Sunday after Sunday. My husband comes through the door and in the same way a thirsty plant’s roots grow towards a life-giving water source my children gravitate automatically towards my husband. Their little roots move towards him because he is the nourishment their hearts need.

Like thirsty plants, I tell him. They need to drink you in. 

I know it feels like ants marching on his back when he is oh so tired, but when the plants are thirsty they won’t leave the source of what they need the most. You can send them away but they will boomerang back for a drink to quench their thirst.

He sees their thirst so he goes and throws ball in the yard, jumps on the trampoline, reads a Leaning Tower of Pisa like stack of books, beats Bowser and finds the last hidden star in Mario Brothers 3D World. He sees their thirsty roots and he lets them drink up his time.  By Sunday evening all my children feel watered well. Replenished, loved, connected and with full hearts. Ready to walk with well watered roots that will bring them into classrooms, baseball practices and conversations with friends on the bus.

When children are circling you, poking you, piling up in your lap. That’s when they need to drink you up. When the plants are thirsty, don’t make them wait, let them drink. Put down the phone, that email, put off the things that can wait until the morning and see the little plants moving their roots near to you. They need you then. Let them drink so they can walk into their worlds with well watered roots.

Why We Can’t Stand Alone In Our Grief

I have many friends who have known me in my grief and many friends who have loved me in my grief. Friends who loved me when I was so guarded, I completely detached from the roots that make me uniquely Rachel. I have a great community of people who have shared my grief and entered into it and for this reason, when I was ready, I believe I was able to heal and find fullness once again.

Shalom. Wholeness. Fullness. Contentment, completeness, wholeness, well being and harmony.

I believe we can never stand alone in our grief. I have been there. When we stand alone in our grief, grief consumes us. Grief is all enveloping. Grief is like a heavy cloak that is so heavy you cannot remove it on your own.

Before belief in Jesus, The Gospel and The Bible, I believed in grieving behind closed doors. I believed in suffering in silence, giving safe answers to hard questions, holding back tears and flashing “I’m fine” half smiles. Before my understanding of a Jesus who wept and a God who gave His one and only Son to give His life as a ransom for many, I believed in a life of bootstrap pulling and suffering behind closed doors. I believed lies that told me I was alone in my suffering. I believed the lies that I was different and unworthy because of my grief. I believed the lie that it was wrong to be broken in front of a watching world. I felt shame. For a long time I felt there was something wrong with me because of the broken heart of grief I carried silently around within my chest.

Before a changed heart and a changed life in Christ I believed in half-sightedness. I covered that broken heart and the shame with mask, upon mask, upon mask. Masking hurt with pretend strength, worn out boots and a calloused heart that could never fully heal alone behind those closed doors. A heart that could never heal when it was threaded in lies and tangled up in masks.

And I believe, belief in Jesus has changed the way I view my grief. And overtime I see Christ, by His grace and through His church transforming me.

In Mark Chapter 8, Jesus heals the blind Man at Bethsaida. And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.

I believe Jesus does not want us, as his people to be walking around behind masks upon masks on our hearts, living with half-sightedness. In the passage above, Jesus heals the man, but when he looks around all he can see are men that look like trees. The man’s whole sight isn’t restored. So Jesus, lays his hands on the man’s eyes again to restore him to whole-sightedness. Wholeness. Jesus doesn’t desire for us to be healed only half way, Jesus wants us to be whole.

Wholeness. Shalom. Peace, Complete restoration.

Charles Scriven (The Promise of Peace, 2009):

So when the prophet Ezekiel spoke words of hope to the exiled people of Israel, he used the word shalom–“peace.” He did this because in the Hebrew tongue, shalom was about food, safety, and freedom; it was about prosperity, well-being, self-respect for the whole community. All this is what people need and want when they feel anxious or think their lives are hanging by a thread. Ezekiel, therefore, thought of God’s promise-the Great Promise–as a “covenant of peace.” The partnership between God and Israel meant that someday the things that hurt would lose out to the things that heal and restore. Someday, God’s people would flourish and be fully alive. (p. 57)

When I think of the shame I had over my broken heart, the hiding, the half-sightedness. I think of how desperately I wanted to live with whole-sight. With wholeness. Shalom. I wanted to feel the truth that someday the things that hurt would lose out to the things that heal and restore. That someday, Someday, as God’s child I would flourish and be fully alive.

Tim Keller Generous Justice (2010)

It means complete reconciliation, a state of the fullest flourishing in every dimension–physical, emotional, social, and spiritual–because all relationships are right, perfect, and filled with joy. (p. 174)

Shalom. Wholeness. Whole sight.

I often think about the years I sat in my shame and grief alone, hidden behind those masks upon masks. When I first believed, I knew enough scripture to be able to walk in half-sightedness. I knew Jesus wanted me to find comfort in Him. I knew Jesus wanted me to rest in Him. “Come to me all who are burdened and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” I just didn’t know how to find wholeness alone. I needed others to come alongside me and share in my grief, cry tears with me and preach truth to me. Because with half-sightless and masks over my broken heart I could not see truth with full clarity. I could not see truth with half sight.

We need others to share in our grief so others can preach truth to us when we can’t see it for ourselves. Community draws us out of the lies we preach to ourselves in our grief. Community draws us out of the shadows of shame and into the light of Christ. 

So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. (2 Timothy 2:22) 

We cannot be pushed out of our youthful passions and the shadows of shame unless we are alongside others, calling us out of it and helping us pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace. Shame is too big. Shame is all consuming. And walking along in shame is a breeding ground for lies.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:8-9)

We are drawn out of the darkness and the shadows of shame and into a people. A priesthood. A nation. We are drawn out of the darkness and into a community of others. A community of the marvelous light of Jesus where we can be seen and unashamed because we belong to Christ.

We cannot stand alone in our grief because we cannot bear the burdens of grief alone. 

In a recent sermon I heard in church from the series “A Community That Cares” I learned that God cares for us here on earth by giving us a community of leaders.

Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing that you are doing is not good. “You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. (Exodus 18:17-18)

Heart work is hard work and being alone in your grief is not good. You will surely wear out, the task is much too heavy to bear alone. We cannot be alone in our grief, we need leaders, leaders in our Bible studies, Sunday Schools, churches and community groups. We can’t do the heart work of removing masks from our hearts alone. It is hard work.

When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up–one on one side, one on the other–so that his hands remained steady till sunset.

We need friends at our sides, holding up our hands when we can’t hold them up ourselves. We are human and God provides friends to be alongside to do the heavy lifting when we can’t bear the load.

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

Jesus is the ultimate burden-bearer. We are called to bear one another’s burden which also means we must step out from behind the masks and the shadows of shame and allow others to bear our burdens as well.

The way I think about grief, my pain and the loss of my mother has changed little by little, thread by thread. It is a process of putting off old patterns and walking in new ones.

put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires,  and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22-24)

And thread by thread as I unravel untruths from truths I feel God restoring me to whole-sightedness. I feel God bringing me out of the shadows of shame and out from behind the masks upon masks upon masks, into His marvelous light.

Little by little and thread by thread as I unravel, I feel shalom-peace: complete reconciliation, a state of the fullest flourishing in every dimension–physical, emotional, social, and spiritual–because all relationships are right, perfect, and filled with joy.

If we say, ‘I believe in Jesus,’ but it doesn’t affect the way we live, the answer is not that now we need to add hard work to our faith so much as that we haven’t truly understood or believed in Jesus at all.” Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith

When The Memories Change

Sometimes it takes almost two decades for the memories to change from gray and back to color once again. Sometimes it takes years to walk through stages of grief and dig out from the walls you didn’t even know were callousing your heart.

Sometimes it takes years upon years to dig through the sadness to find that there was love and happiness underneath all of the grief. To remember there was once joy and smiles before the pain.

But the memories do change overtime.

At first I couldn’t even think about you. Recalling your laugh was a reminder of a life without hearing it ever again, the wounds of grief still freshly open, so I filed the memory of that laugh far away. So far I couldn’t remember it at all, so far I forgot about it for a time.

Later, when I thought I was ready to revisit your laugh, I pulled that memory out again. Only this time I didn’t feel the intense pain of that fresh wound, I felt sad. Tears came and that memory became a gray place for me to go when I thought of you. Your laugh which once brought me joy was now causing me tears. Every memory I pulled out of my time with you brought sadness. Every joyful moment we shared together brought tears. For a season I couldn’t even think of you without being sad or hear a story about you without crying hot heavy tears.

Then there was anger. How when I entered the season of marriage and having my own children, the anger came about how your laugh would never be heard or shared with them. Your presence and unconditional love through parenting four newborns in four years was deeply missed and I was actually quite pissed at you for not being her to help me hold and rock all the babies I could barely fit in my lap. And the anger that you missed tickling and laughing with my kids, blowing on their bellies or pretend gnawing on their chubby neck rolls. Anger. Hot red anger. The laugh that once brought me joy then, then it cause hot red, burning anger, festering with frustration about how this is just not the way it was supposed to be for us.

And then over time. On the other side of pushing memories away, the graying of them, the hot red frustration about them, the memories finally changed. Underneath the pain, the sadness and anger, once I dug out from underneath all of it I remembered the joy and the love.

I remembered your laugh and I wanted to talk with people about it. And the fullness of color, the clarity of sound, the way you smelled of Lancome’s Tresor. It all came back. The memories changed back when I was well enough to be thankful for the memories I was able to share with you. The tears still came but the tears were different.

And it is the joy that I know you want me to pass on to my family and others. Not the pain, the sadness or the anger. But the joy of your laugh. Your smile despite the battle you were fighting. The joy you showed me even when I knew you were angry too about the times you would miss with us. The stories that others share about you, now that I can hear them in full color I can see that you lived a life of joy in the midst of uncertainty and struggle. That what ties all the stories others share about you is your smile and your laugh.

When the memories change it is much easier to whisper your name to my kids over a bedtime story or hear them say your name in their prayers. It’s easier to tell them where I learned a group hug called a hunga-bunga, why I drive too close to the steer wheel, why we put red hots on Christmas cookies or even one day when they are old enough to tell them where they got that gene to use that curse word, the one you loved so much, at the drop of a hat.

When the memories change, it takes time, decades, seasons and stages but the memories do change back to reflect love. The sadness is still there but the sadness is quite different when it is seen through the lens of love. When the memories change on days like today, I can think of your laugh and be thankful for the times I was able to hear it up close and in person.